I was contacted by the Daily Mail this week about some photos they'd got of a fox looking for an easy meal at Barnes. Nothing unusual in that; it's what foxes do. It was what happened next that was fun. All the ducks, geese, coots and cormorants ganged-up in a rare moment of solidarity, effectively telling the fox to move on without a hiss, quack or wing flap needed.
After the fox had departed, I expect they returned to their normal behaviour of coots aggressively chasing anything that unsettled them, and the stronger ducks snatching food from the weaker ones. This is nature in the raw; survival of the fittest and it's true of birds, rodents and of course, mammals; including us humans.
How many examples have we had in the past week of people who've failed to do the right thing at the right time, prefering to either stay silent or turn a blind eye? In the case of the fox, it saw an opportunity, investigated and was decided to move on. The birds saw a threat they didn't like and acted collectively and instinctively to resolve it. Had there been a single alarm call from a solitary bird, I'm sure the fox would have gambled on being successful. It was the vigilance and mass response that convinced the fox to walk away. We have much to learn and re-learn from nature.
Speaking out about things that we see as threats is second nature to the RSPB. Our founders did it, way back in the late 1800's before women got the vote, and we're still doing it today. But alongside this firm resolve is a playful side. Hands up, who has tried to catch a falling leaf this week? I almost came off my bike as I stretched and missed (by mere millimetres) a particularly fine, large, golden London Plane tree leaf. I would have caught it, had it not been for a sudden gust of wind that cheated me and my amazing dexterity. In my mind I was graceful, elegant and athletic. Witnesses say I looked more like an excited, overweight puppy in freefall.
There are plenty of leaves still to fall, and this weekend promises to be a windy and refreshingly chilly one. Ideal for blowing away cobwebs, clearing minds and recapturing playful approaches to life. Challenge a friend, partner or relative to a leaf catching competition. Whoever harvests the least can treat the winner to a mug of hot chocolate. It's a special weekend too. Friday sees the Muslim holy day of Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. The clocks go back an hour at 02:00 on Sunday morning and it's the start of schools' half-term; much to celebrate in our brave new world where people come together to challenge the unjust.
Today, the RSPB revealed a system for measuring how well connected you are with the natural world.
It's all about quality of life and the state of our environment. In simple terms, it means how we feel about, and interact with, nature and wildlife.
There are International and UK Government agreements stating how important the natural world is for our health and well being. These commitments stress the importance of everyone not only having access to green spaces, but also understanding how nature works... like the water cycle; the food chain. That sort of stuff.
Some people dismiss all this as 'nice to have' but they're happy to push it aside if it gets in the way of other perceived priorities. We do need to get the UK economy growing again and we do need to improve our housing, transport, food and energy infrastuctures. But we should not sacrifice human and natural health in striving to meet those ambitions.
It seems this is not the norm for society. Please do prove me wrong by commenting on this blog, but I appear to be alone in being outraged to read in several newspapers and blogs that building a new airport in the Thames Estuary will reduce the current number of deaths from air pollution by a third. Well, whippee-do.
That suggests we're not too bothered by the fact that currently some 50 people a year die around Heathrow as a result of air pollution. The reporting of this research didn't explore the morality of commentators promoting proposals for an airport in the estuary as a means of reducing deaths in London.
How big is our separation from the real things that matter in life, such as health, well-being, nature and happiness, if we are content to accept the death of some fifteen or sixteen people living in the estuary area as the price for flying? Take this to an extreme and you could ask estuary airport promoter Boris Johnson if he sees residents living along the banks of the estuary as more dispensable than Londoners?
The fact is, no one should be dying as a result of the apparently well-researched and documented effects of air pollution. There are known techniques and technologies around to reduce this pollution. Where's the legislation demanding these life-saving measures aren't obligatory?
Calls to build bigger airports or expand old ones is the equivalent of the trumpet call signalling the charge of the light brigade. Rein in your horse, consider the options and join us in urging the Transport Secretary to invest in the green economy delivering a future where no one dies as part of the cost of others jetting-off on holiday or business.
Imagine your cash as the leaves on a tree. You've taken great care to ensure they grow while the sun shines, but autumn's here and darker days lie ahead. It's always been that way. But sinister forces are at work.
This year has seen erratic weather and my limp and pale leaves have long lost their value, as we continue to be battered by the winds of an economic storm, made more ferocious by the impacts of climate change. My carefully tended leaves are being swept away with those of so many other people. We're in the middle of a forest of bare branched trees with our savings blusterly (if there is such a word) whirling round our heads and rotting round our ankles.
As an eternal optimist I see my shrinking stock of money/leaf mould slowly giving-up its goodness to the ground, and I know that eventually green shoots will start to sprout. New growth will once more bring me a richness of leaves, branches, flowers and fruits that we can all share.
Nature is a slow growth fan. It doesn't like to rush, but slow growth delivers maximum benefit. That's why I, and colleagues at the RSPB, put so much energy into opposing quick fix development schemes. Conservationists have been very slow to adapt, but we've finally caught-up with evolution and have a new sixth sense. We have the ability to see financial values!
Just because you don't pay for something, doesn't mean it's worthless. Ants, badgers, wildflowers, bees and yes birds all play a part in nature's cycles, and without them, the cost of staying alive would be eye-watering. Having said that, we already pay through our taxes for our countryside. We pay for clean air and water. We pay for the food we eat, and of course we pay to clean-up the pollution caused by many of the processes that supply us with all the energy, water, food and air that we paid for earlier.
But here's an interesting statistic. If everyone in the world drank a fifth fewer soft drinks a year and donated the cash normally spent on those drinks towards a green fund, we could save every single threatened species and habitat currently in existence. Isn't that amazing?
Until the world saves its squash, we're in a environmental squeeze, and that's where you can help. Please support our campain for investment in a green economy; starting with CAP reform to ensure our countryside remains fit for purpose. Or take part in our virtual balloon race! You get to design and fly your own balloon against others on the real air currents as monitored by the Met Office. No nature will be harmed in our race but the money you raise will help us scatter leaf mould to grow a better future for us all.
If you're going out with mates this evening and everyone's having a great time, stop it dead by saying the following out loud: "Today marks the fifth anniversary of laws preventing people from paving over front gardens without planning permission".
Life and soul of the party you are not. But you've shown your green credentials. You get a big tick for stepping up for nature.
Heaven knows where we'd be without this new legislation following the wettest September in the UK for thirty years. In India it's also been the wettest September, but one of the driest Monsoon seasons. Over in South America, even the mighty Amazon is drying out. Water is a global issue and allowing rainwater to gush down our drains as it runs off land concreted-over to meet our needs for car parking is pretty uncool.
I'm not personally aware of Londoner who has been prosecuted for paving over their front garden. Do let me know if I'm wrong, or I will be forced to assume that either the law has been a huge success or it's being ignored. Water is one of those things we generally take for granted, until there's either too much or too little. That's true of so many things that don't have a price tag. Like wildlife, marine habitats or the countryside.
Laws are written to protect what we can, and for those things that slip between the legislation, there's tax money to repair the damage. But that system is as outdated as Stephenson's Rocket and Sir Joseph Bazalgette's Victorian sewers. What's needed is some smart development harnessing nature's powers and using them to inform the way we build and plan. Back that up with investment in the right sectors and we're on to a winner.
Why are so many homes built on flood plains? Why do we encourage farmers financially to try to squeeze ever more out of their land or allow people who order their staff to persecute wildlife to escape blame. I wish I knew.
I do know that the RSPB has been trying to address some of these issues through our work with water. Silly development in the wrong place has made flooding worse than it need be. The Common Agricultural Policy encourages over extraction of water and pollution of waterways and our habitat restoration work in Bowland in northern England is helping United Utilities lower the extremely high cost of purifying rainwater for human consumption. As part of the same habitat work we're boosting numbers of birds of prey, but many still mysteriously die when they fly onto land owned by individuals who deny all knowledge.
As UK tax payers, we all contribute two Euro's thirty cents a week (almost £100 a year) towards the maintenace of our countryside. It's time we stood up and demanded payback. Londoners unite for a healthy countryside and affordable quality food!
Autumn has fallen. Not with the gentle floating of a golden-brown leaf settling gently on the ground, but the subtlety of a lead pipe delivered by a cold-blooded thug. With a resounding thwump, leaves have carpeted the ground overnight, falling only slightly faster than the temperature.
Not that I'm moaning. It was a welcome change to be cycling through cold rain. A good way to wake me up on a dark Monday morning. A good way to feel connected with the changing seasons. Officially British Sumer Time ends on the 28th of October when we all put our clocks, ovens and the various other digi-time things we all seem to own back an hour. but for me. Summer is history and it's time to wrap-up in oilskins and test the heating system.
There are various games we can all play to enjoy our new season. Why not keep a rain-log. stick a jam jar on your windowsill to measure rainfall. If the jam jar vanishes, it's an indication that we've had strong wind. If we get a dry spell, gather and sort leaves by colour, then make a mosiac picture in shades of green, brown and yellow. No doubt we'll soon see a rush by the media to laugh at Health and Safety rules that stop us from blinding each other during games involving conkers.
Try to avoid trimming ivy that is coming in to fruit; or that soon will be. It's an essential winter food supply for many species. If you do HAVE to trim ivy, try to leave some fresh growth and make a mental note to trim that next year in a sort of rotational trimming regime. Of course if the ivy is threatening to push its way into any architecturally vulnerable spots such as window frames, air-vents or under cladding, then it must be cut back a sensible distance. Ivy can provide a protective, insulating layer that helps keep your house warm, so please don't listen to those who demonise it as a house wreaker. Properly managed, it's a valuable asset.
Autumn is the time when wildlife takes stock (sometimes literally) and prepares to shut-down for winter. Hedgehogs and dormice will be lining nests. Squirrels forgetting where they stashed nuts, and bugs will be digging deep into bark, dead-wood or the soil. On the plus-side. It's time to dig-out all those lovely warming soup and stew recipes. A new one I'm dying to test is a caramelised parsnip tart. All those extra calories are needed to keep us warm. The same's true for birds. Hanging out high-energy fat balls for birds to peck (don't be childish), and ensuring seed feeders are topped-up will be a great support for your local bird population. Birds are far smarter than many credit. Once they've established there's a regular food supply, they will return to it, so once you've started putting out food for them, be prepared to maintain supplies.
As an example of avian intelligence I'll point you to a new study which has found birds give their offspring names .. well Venezuela's spectacled parrotlets, Forpus conspicillatus, do. Researchers studied the calls of parents and chicks and their conclusions are compelling. Follow it through and it suggests that birds have a sense of self and the ability to identify others, especially relatives. These are characteristics that are rarely attributed to wildlife, so having proof in one species makes you wonder if it's true of all species. Those blue tits nesting in your ivy, the tit family surviving the cold weather thanks to the high-energy food you put out, may be singing, "Hey Dolores, the fat balls are out. Bring the kids, Trevon and Siobham. We'll have ivy berry for pudding to make sure we get through another bitter night!"